The catacombs are some of the most extraordinary parts of Rome. Pilgrims on ‘The Italian Way’ and Emerging Leaders Program had the opportunity to enter this amazing network of subterranean passageways, in which thousands upon thousands of Christians lay buried.

Anyone who has visited the catacombs before knows what a moving experience it can be—an opportunity to touch history, and to experience the faith of the early Christians, many of whom were martyred simply for becoming followers of Jesus. This was a chance for some of Melbourne’s pilgrims to encounter the Lord anew as they come to a deeper appreciation of what becoming Christian actually meant to people in the ancient world—and the dangerous ramifications if the wrong people found out.

As the pilgrims continue exploring the Eternal City, we delve into some of the fascinating history of Rome’s Christian catacombs.

A pioneering Christian archaeologist

Antonio Busio (1575–1629) was a Maltese scholar and is widely regarded as the founder of Christian archaeology.

As an illegitimate child, Busio was placed under the guardianship of his uncle, who served as a representative of the Knights of Malta in Rome. There, in the Roman cultural circles of the sixteenth century, the young student of literature and philosophy also became interested in the study of early Christianity, which was flowering anew since the accidental discovery of a subterranean cemetery on the Via Salaria.

Little work had been done exploring that cemetery any deeper, but when he was only 18 years old, Busio committed himself to exploring the catacombs, following their passages to discover the burial places of many early Christian martyrs. The extent of the catacombs proved to be an incredible discovery.

The details of his explorations were compiled and published in his book, Roma Sotterranea (1632). He is known as the ‘Columbus of the Catacombs’.

Why were they made?

According to Roman law at the time, the burial of bodies inside the city was prohibited, forcing people to take their dead outside the walls.

Since the practice of cremating the dead was common in the ancient world, this law didn’t pose much of a problem for most people. But while the Church does permit cremation today, provided the ashes are buried and not scattered, the early Christians objected to the practice because of its association with pagan beliefs and rituals. In Christian tradition, the preference for burying the dead reflects the Church’s belief in the eventual resurrection of the body.

With the growing numbers of Christians in ancient Rome, finding enough space for burials became a problem, and subterranean catacombs were the answer.

The digging of the catacombs, which is thought to have mostly been done by hand, began sometime in the second century, continuing through to the fifth. The passageways forming the underground labyrinth are sometimes kilometres long, and the tombs are actually rows of rectangular niches dug out of the walls. The bodies of the dead would be wrapped in sheets and placed in those niches before being covered up with baked clay, or sometimes marble.

Jules Eugene Lenepveu The Martyrs in the Catacombs
Jules Cyrille-Cave, ‘Martyrs in the Catacombs’, 1886.

Christian persecution and early Christian art

The secrecy of the catacombs allowed the early followers of Jesus to mark the graves with obviously Christian symbols.The time in which they were first dug was a time of intense persecution for Christians. Followers of ‘the Way’ (Acts 9:2) were seen as superstitious, even as ‘atheists’, by the Roman authorities because of their refusal to offer sacrifice to pagan gods. They were falsely accused of horrible crimes and even blamed for things that had nothing to do with them. But as the Pauline scholar NT Wright suggests, Christians were also controversial because of their claim that Christ was ‘Lord’—a politically charged term in the ancient world—which clearly implied that Caesar was not.

With such violent persecution directed at Christians, the only way for them to mark graves, make art or inscribe things was in secret. The catacombs therefore contain some of the earliest Christian art and inscriptions.

Popular symbols in the early church included the ‘orante’, a praying figure with open arms that symbolised the soul living in the peace of Christ. The Greek letters Alpha and Omega were also commonly used, as well as the image of a dove holding an olive branch, and an anchor, which signified the soul finally reaching the port of eternal life.

Another famous Christian symbol—more famous than others, perhaps—is the simple drawing of a fish. The Greek word for fish is ichthus, and when read as an acrostic, it stands for the central Christian belief: Iesous CHristos Theou Uios Soter (‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’). The drawing of the fish became a shorthand, allowing Christians to identify one another in public, mark sacred sites and point to special gatherings.

The fish also had a deeper theological symbolisism. Jesus began his ministry by calling the twelve apostles to come and be ‘fishers of people’ with him (Matthew 4:19). Christians are those ‘little fishes’ caught by Christ.

1243px Stele Licinia Amias Terme 67646
Funerary stele with the inscription ΙΧΘΥϹ ΖΩΝΤΩΝ (‘fish of the living’), early third century, National Roman Museum.

There was also the famous monogram of Christ, interlacing two Greek letters X (chi) and P (ro), which were the first two letters of the word ‘Christ’ in Greek. This symbol was placed on almost every gravestone.

Yet another popular piece of early Christian art was a depiction of Christ the Good Shepherd, often with a lamb around his shoulders, representing the soul being saved. These images are often found in the frescoes and reliefs of early Christian sarcophagi.

Good Shepherd 04
Fresco of the Good Shepherd in the Catacombs of Domitilla.

Five publicly accessible catacombs

Although there are more than 60 catacombs beneath the city of Rome, many kilometres long and containing thousands of tombs, only five are open to the public:

  • the Catacombs of San Sebastiano
    Along the Via Appia Antica, these catacombs are 12 kilometres long and named after a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and was martyred for doing so.
  • the Catacombs of San Callisto
    Also along the Via Appia, this network of passageways is over 20 kilometres long. It is thought that up to 16 popes were buried here, in a section of the labyrinth nicknamed ‘the little Vatican’.
  • the Catacombs of Priscilla
    On the Via Salaria, these catacombs contain some of the first artistic depictions of the Virgin Mary.
Madonna catacomb
Depiction of the Blessed Virgin Mary nursing the infant Jesus in the Catacombs of Priscilla.
  • the Catacombs of Domitilla
    These catacombs on the Via delle Sette Chiese are more than 15 kilometres in length and named after the granddaughter of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, St Flavia Domitilla, who converted to Christianity and was banished as a result. A popular devotion grew around this young woman, with many early Christians seeking her intercession amid persecution.

    St Flavia has a special Melbourne connection too. Melbourne’s first bishop, James Alipius Goold, was in Rome near the time of her tomb’s discovery, and he was able to bring her relics back with him, along with a wax effigy. The relics were installed in the cathedral’s very first wooden altar, which now resides at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Carlton. Her wax effigy can be visited at the James Alipius Goold Museum, located near St Patrick’s Cathedral.
  • the Catacombs of Sant’Agnese
    On the Via Nomentana are the catacombs named after St Agnes, another young woman who was special to the early Christians. Born to Roman nobility, her steadfast devotion to Christ led her to being martyred at the young age of twelve or thirteen under the reign of the Emperor Diocletian at the turn of the fourth century.